Saturday, March 1, 2008

A Cup of Kindness

At the Barista cafe, on Juhu road, I’m waiting for service. The young man swabbing the decks isn’t qualified to put the kettle on, seemingly, so he disappears behind a bead curtain, to find someone who is, before resuming his Forth-Bridge mop-duties. The kettle-wala asks me where I’m from, then swipes the sinuous music off the CD player, and puts on Shania Twain, in deference to my Englishness. I know she’s from Canada, but “Still the One” has no sitar, no tabla-drum, no poongi-flute, so Shania’s still the one for western ears. When he brings my latte, it’s got, “Welcome to India” piped in chocolate syrup on the froth, and I let the coffee go cold while I take its picture. When I go to pay the bill, I ask the waiter his name. He’s cagey, and asks me if I want to complain, because he saw me writing in my little black book. Trying to work out ten percent of not-very-much, for the tip, I assure him otherwise, and show him my shopping list. He tells me his name’s Pal. Never one to let a pedagogic opportunity go by, I start to tell him what “Pal” means in English, but he stops me. “I know, Pal is best friend. Now you have one more friend in India.” I’m only sorry I didn’t have oysters and champagne, so I could leave him a million rupees under my plate.
At Coffee Day, the best-known cafe chain in Mumbai, we order our usual - Americano for Mr Roland, latte for me, how unauthentic can you get? We could have had Masala Chai, but I’m not brave enough yet. Anyway, I don’t want a safe, sterile version, I want my Masala Chai from the Chai Wala on the street. If you’re thinking tea, stop right there. Chai’s half milk, half water, made with not only tea leaves but a blend of spices – cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger - all boiled up together, with enough sugar to make your fillings panic. (The Average Indian has a very sweet tooth – when we refuse sugar, they’re so amazed, they practically write it down, so they’ll remember to tell their Mums later.) If you’re having Chai, put aside all PG Tips associations, think rather of a fragrant cousin of hot chocolate. The street vendors serve it in small glass tumblers – we see them squatting to swirl them in milky water, for a quick rinse, then set them on the gritty pavement to dry before re-use. This is possibly why Madhur Jaffrey says, “Don’t!” But I’m going to, Madhur, very, very soon.
Our Coffee Day waiter brings the bill. “It’s been a pleasure to serve you,” is written in blue up the side. I admire the grammar, but lick the receipt, to see whether their till-roll is printed that way, to charm customers on purpose, or if it’s our own waiter’s particular note to two specific pasty-faced punters. Scientific analysis says it’s genuine, so I allow myself to be charmed. I stash the receipt in my handbag forever.